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Take me down to the paradise city, where the ledges are mean and the seats are shitty

A park bench. A bus stop. A concrete ledge. An underpass. A public toilet. All great spots to sit and wait, shelter from the elements, squeeze the lemon, or simply relax for a while as you try to win the rat race. But park benches, bus stops or underpasses are equally great as places for homeless people to sleep, junkies to shoot up, youths to congregate, or, if you’re really paranoid, dodgy grifters to lay in wait for their next victims. And that concrete ledge might just appeal to the social scourge known as ‘skateboarders’.

This is where unpleasant design – also known as hostile or disciplinary architecture – comes in. Spikes, bars, slopes, railings, stones, bollards, lights and even paints are all among the tactics employed to deter certain groups from using and/or abusing public objects – often without looking like they’re there to deter those groups.

Just like Donald Trump, it’s obviously evil, but also somehow fiendishly clever. And, according to Gordan Savic?ic? and Selena Savic?, co-editors of the book Unpleasant Design (in a clever touch, it has a sandpaper dust jacket, just to make reading it slightly more unpleasant), these designs are actually quite successful, simply because they achieve their desired goal.

As Turkka Keinonen, the professor of design and head of department at Aalto University, school of arts, design, and architecture, says: “Design is about creating the right relationships between people, environments, and goals. If design succeeds in mediating those things – the goals, the people, the context – then it works.” 

The Camden Bench.

The Camden Bench is often held up as an examplar of this form and critic Frank Swain called it ‘the perfect anti-object’. As the design podcast 99% Invisible said: “The Camden Bench is virtually impossible to sleep on. It is anti-dealer and anti-litter because it features no slots or crevices in which to stash drugs or into which trash could slip. It is anti-theft because the recesses near the ground allow people to store bags behind their legs and away from would be criminals. It is anti- skateboard because the edges on the bench fluctuate in height to make grinding difficult. It is anti-graffiti because it has a special coating to repel paint.” 

Savic? admires the cunning of these ‘silent agents’ – “the designs that are hidden, or not apparent to people they don’t target”. But if empathy is your thing, it is hard to swallow and one of the main criticisms of this type of design is that it aims to exclude already marginalised groups.

As Savic told the BBC: “[Unpleasant design] is there to make things pleasant, but for a very particular audience. So in the general case, it’s pleasant for families, but not pleasant for junkies.”

‘Anti-homeless spikes’ in particular have led to public protests and, in some cases, activists have succeeded in having them removed due to what they believe are human rights abuses.

Of course, our public spaces are always manipulating us – or, to put it more diplomatically, influencing our behaviour – whether it’s the cobbled shared spaces that slow drivers down, the speed limit signs that set expectations, the lights that allow us to walk the streets at night, or even the footpaths and driving lanes that separate pedestrians and vehicles. And similar subtle influences can also be seen in other public spaces, like restaurants, airports or malls. The difference here is that unpleasant design techniques are generally being deployed in the hope of commercial gain, rather than creating what architect and city planner Oscar Newman called ‘defensible space’ in 1972.

As the BBC story points out, there’s the “famous (if apocryphal) story … that the plastic chairs in McDonald’s are engineered to be comfortable for a maximum of 15 minutes to keep tables free”; many airports around the world limit the number of seats available to their millions of weary travellers so they will instead venture to one of the many terminal restaurants; and “escalators in multi-level shopping malls or department stores are often deliberately positioned so that you must walk past more shops to ascend each floor”.

Top: Anti-climb paint. Bottom: Oliver Schau’s street ‘furniture’

And then there’s the continuing debate about the position of the milk in supermarkets. Some believe it’s always near the back in an explicit effort to ‘build the basket’ by forcing customers to walk through the entire store, while others believe it’s more of a practical consideration because supermarkets need to keep those products cool and position the chillers close to the loading bay. No-one’s sure exactly, but it’s probably a bit of both.

Knowledge is power, of course, and by drawing attention to different forms of unpleasant design Savic?ic? and Savic? want more people to understand that the spaces you may take for granted could in fact be subtly changing the way you interact with your city.

If you’re not keen to protest, there are other ways to combat the unpleasantness. In 2003, Ste?phane Argillet and Gilles Pate? made a great six minute film called The Fakir’s Rest, which showed one of the film-makers trying to rest on every piece of unpleasant anti-homeless furniture he could find in Paris (moral of the story: if you’re willing to contort yourself, you’ll be fine).

Top: Anti-skating concrete. Below: Anti-sleeping spikes

Artist Sarah Ross created the Archisuit, a wearable solution to navigate the many sleep-stoppers and rest-wreckers around Los Angeles. And in Germany, artist Oliver Schau came up with a simple way to help residents slow down, smell the roses (or bus fumes) and appreciate their city: bright yellow drainage pipes that could be used to create benches and other seating areas in unexpected places. Similarly, Softwalks, a ‘human centred urban innovation studio’, has created a range of budget furniture that attaches to scaffolding and other posts and claims to bring underutilised spaces to life.

If you’re willing to take this idea even further and turn previously unusable city space into your own relaxing aerial retreat, then might we suggest some extreme urban hammocking. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘wanna hang?’

Creativity loves constraints, after all, so while the evil design geniuses may try to make our benches unsleepable, our seats uncomfortable, our rubbish bins unfillable, our posts unstickerable and our ledges unskateable, never underestimate the human capacity for finding and embracing loopholes. 

One of the talented Idealog Team Content Producers made this post happen.

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